SAN LUIS OBISPO — UCSB finally looked good in tights on Saturday night.
The Gauchos, 0-8 this season in games that ended with single-digit margins, held on for a 69-64 men’s basketball victory at Cal Poly.
“It was good to play in a tight game,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. “We had to finish a game and make free throws at the end.
“I thought our guys really, really fought — fought — and when you play in a rivalry game, you have to be able to fight for 10 four-minute wars.”
The three-game winning streak is a season-best for UCSB (11-9, 3-4 Big West Conference).
Point guard Ajay Mitchell scored 25 points to surpass his previous high of 21 scored in Thursday’s win at Cal State Bakersfield. His eight points during the final 2:09 helped UCSB counter every Cal Poly score and maintain its five-point lead until the end.
“He’s a freshman but we inserted him into the starting lineup a long time ago,” Pasternack said. “It takes time to be able to run a team on the road when we’re at places like Washington State and Saint Mary’s.
“All those games really prepared him.”
The Gauchos also got 16 points and eight rebounds from senior forward Amadou Sow and 13 points from junior guard Josh Pierre-Louis on 3-for-3 shooting from the three-point line.
UCSB’s strong finish countered a flat-footed start in which it missed its first five shots and committed a turnover. Cal Poly (5-17, 1-9 Big West) made five of its first seven attempts to surge to a 10-0 lead after nearly five minutes.
Mustangs’ guard Brantley Stevenson scored nine of his 14 points during the first 7½ minutes.
“They punched us in the mouth in the first four-minute war,” Pasternack said, “but then I thought our guys really settled down and responded.”
Mitchell brought the Gauchos to life by hitting a jumper, two free throws and a three-pointer from the corner in a span of just two minutes and 44 seconds. Calvin Wishart also made a three as they cut Cal Poly’s lead to 15-10.
UCSB made more than half of its threes (9-of-17, 52.9%) for only the second time this season.
Pierre-Louis, who had made just 1-of-14 three-point attempts coming into the game, got another run going with back-to-back bombs from the same spot in a span of just under two minutes.
His threes sandwiched another by Miles Norris which catapulted the Gauchos into the lead, 25-22.
“To Josh’s credit, he worked so hard on his threes for the last eight months — not recently, for the last eight months, every single day,” Pasternack said. “It obviously hasn’t shown up in the box scores or anything else, but it’s kind of like how he played against Long Beach State in last year’s Big West Tournament. It’s all streaky.
“He hit 3-for-3 against Long Beach State in the first half of the conference tournament, and he made them all tonight.”
Sow, who missed his only shot attempt during the first 17½ minutes, kept UCSB ahead by hitting his last three shots of the first half. His hook shot from the baseline with 3.7 seconds on the clock gave the Gauchos a halftime lead of 33-28.
The three-time All-Big West Conference forward made 8-of-14 shots. He also showed his improvement against double-team defenses by committing no turnovers for only the second time this season.
“I thought Amadou played a solid game and didn’t force much,” Pasternack said.
Defense was the biggest factor in UCSB’s comeback. The Mustangs made 8-of-12 shots in the first nine minutes but just 4-of-16 the rest of the first half. The Gauchos out-shot them 47.6% to 42.9% for the period and 52.3% to 42.1% for the game.
Mitchell stayed hot to start the second half, hitting a pull-up jumper and a runner in the opening minutes. A fast-break layup by Pierre-Louis and a three by Norris improved UCSB’s lead to 42-33.
Another three by Cole Anderson and Pierre-Louis’ third of the game off a skip pass from Sow got the margin into double-digits, 53-43, with 7:07 to go.
Pierre-Louis returned the favor to Sow for back-to-back layups with a pair of driving assists. He finished with a team-high four assists. He also matched his season-low of one turnover which he’d accomplished only two other times this season.
“We were constantly showing him film to improve his game and cut down on the turnovers,” Pasternack said. “I thought he did a really nice job with that tonight.”
Mitchell finished off the Mustangs with a three that bounced on the rim three times before nestling through the basket and 5-of-6 free throws in the final 30.7 seconds. He was 11-of-12 from the line in the game.
The Gauchos needed the clutch shooting to counter the ferocious rebounding of Trevon Taylor. The Cal Poly forward scored 10 of his team-high 15 points in the final six minutes, grabbing seven of his teammates’ misses to finish with a game-high nine rebounds.
The Mustangs out-rebounded UCSB 35-23 while getting 13 on the offensive end.
“We took a step back from a rebounding standpoint,” Pasternack said. “They were really, really aggressive on the boards and really pounded us there.
“For us to be able to make a move here in the conference, we have to be able to rebound a lot better than we did tonight.”
UCSB moved within a half-game of sixth-place UC Davis (10-7, 3-3) in the Big West standings. The top six teams will receive a bye into the quarterfinal round of the conference tournament.
The four Gaucho games canceled by COVID-19 protocols were all home contests. UCSB has played only one countable Big West game at the Thunderdome so far this season (UC San Diego contests don’t count until it completes its transition to Division 1 status).
The Gauchos, however, will play four of their last six games at home. That includes next week’s homestand against second-place Cal State Fullerton on Thursday and first-place Long Beach State on Saturday.
“We’ll have our hands full getting ready for them,” Pasternack said, “but it’ll be nice to get back to practice on Monday after a win over our rival.”